It’s tediously predictable that as soon as a person of colour is cast in a franchise that is traditionally considered to have white characters, there’ll be some sort of uproar from toxic corners of online fandom. So it is with Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. A few minutes on YouTube will dredge up literally hundreds of videos with hundreds of thousands of views, all featuring fans complaining about a “disastrous”, “woke” retelling of a beloved story they are yet to actually see. I’d advise against watching these missives if you value your blood pressure, or have a low tolerance for monotonous-voiced white American dudes in baseball caps using words like “wokeify”. The comments below these videos are, as you’d expect, a cesspit.
It’s depressing, predictable and, my god, I wish we could ignore it. Annoyingly, though, such critics are noisy. They make a racket louder than 10,000 Uruk-hai clashing their swords against shields, and do so with the same purpose: to intimidate, distract and unnerve. When the first character portraits from Amazon’s much-anticipated and almost impossibly expensive Lord of the Rings prequel series emerged, showing actors of colour, including black elf, hobbit and dwarf characters, webcams were immediately fired-up and keyboards frantically bashed.
“Why would there be black people in Middle Earth?!” they say, readily accepting the fact that Tolkien’s fictional land includes giant walking tree people and fire-breathing dragons, but feeling that darker-skinned dwarves are a bit far-fetched. Accusations of “historical inaccuracy” are patently absurd, ignoring the racial diversity that inevitably came with overseas trading even in the ancient world that inspired Middle Earth, as well as the fact that Tolkien, albeit clumsily, included people of colour in his pantheon of races.
The frustrating thing here is that, though Tolkien — a Catholic, born in the Victorian age, with an obsession with mythology — presumably did regard his characters as Caucasian, there really is no reason why they have to be. The divisions in his world are primarily those between species, not race. Elves and dwarves are distrustful of one another, hobbits are wary of men, and orcs, goblins and trolls are the enemies of all (as the great Terry Pratchett once wrote of his own fantasy world, “black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green”). One of the core themes of The Lord of the Rings is of the peoples of Middle Earth — the author’s analogue for ancient Britain — growing past those differences of birth and coming together to defeat evil. It’s even more true in the period covered by the Amazon show, the “Second Age” of the world, which culminates in the “last alliance of Elves and Men” banding together to defeat the dark lord Sauron.
If a story is built around a message of cross-species harmony, it seems trite to complain about the skin tone of the characters. We also know very little about the story Amazon is telling, beyond what’s in the books. One new character, Arondir, played by the Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova, is a Silvan elf — a woodland elf of a different strand to the “high” elves like the familiar Elrond and Galadriel. If this version of the story has cast the Silvan elves as a dark-skinned people (and it may not have done), then that’s potentially a very effective way of highlighting the different races of elves, otherwise they are all interchangeably tall and porcelain pale. It’s not pointlessly woke, it’s better visual storytelling. Whether that draws parallels to our own world remains to be seen. In the books, the Silvan elves are essentially a lower social class to the high elves, so the show could be making a point about traditionally racist views among the Western aristocracy, represented by the high Nolder elves. Or perhaps not – Tolkien is very clear in his preface to a later edition of The Lord of the Rings that his stories aren’t “allegorical in nature”, but that he is happy for people to find them “applicable”.
It’s also true that Tolkien’s story, beloved as it is, could probably do with some updating. Reading it now, there’s plenty of language that might jar with 21st-century audiences. The Black Riders of The Fellowship of the Ring are often referred to by the plain-speaking hobbit characters merely as “black men” and “black fellows”. The intent is innocent enough — the riders dress in black — but it still reads oddly today. Later Tolkien mentions the “dark-skinned” races of men “to the south” who fight on the side of evil. His descriptions of these “cruel Haradrim” are peppered with references to “swarthy” and “squint-eyed” faces. The orcs have been viewed as coded with an imperialist otherness, a view supported particularly in Tolkien’s private letters, where he referred to them as like “degraded and repulsive versions of the least lovely Mongol-types”. Like his friend CS Lewis, who created the bluntly Islamophobic race of Calormen in his Narnia stories, Tolkien was channelling the language and attitudes of the time — attitudes we now understand as simply racist. The stories that will comprise The Rings of Power are previously untold on screen, giving producers an opportunity to shake them free of the prejudices of the era in which they were written.
The rants of the YouTubing minority comprise a tiny fraction of the audience for this show, and yet consider themselves its gatekeepers. Pay them no mind. Like Saruman the wizard, they have a loud voice but, in the end, no great power. For the rest of us, we can look forward to seeing new stories of a mythical age in a context that makes sense for the world we are viewing them from.